In 1913, the man who built the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Carl Fisher, inaugurated the first trans-continental highway in the U.S. Known as the Lincoln Highway, it stretched 3,400 miles from New York City to San Francisco. However, it should probably be noted that the road was more of an idea than an actual thing. At the time pretty much all long distance travel was done by train, with most roads being little more than dirt tracks. Of the estimated 2.2 million miles of road in the US, only 9 percent were gravel or paved. Though a bunch of rich car lovers, including President Wilson, provided money for the improvement of the Lincoln Highway, most of it was little better than the rest of the country's road system.
In 1919 the U.S. Army decided to test the Lincoln Highway by sending a convoy of 81 military vehicles; including cars, trucks, and motorcycles; across the country. Comprising 297 soldiers, the convoy was more of a rolling city, carrying all of the means necessary to keep it moving. Things went rather well for the convoy until it reached Illinois, after which little to none of the route was paved. The entire journey took a total of 56 days with the convoy traveling an average of five miles per hour. Over the course of the trip the convoy experienced 230 breakdowns and accidents, nine vehicles had to be abandoned, and 21 men were injured so badly that they couldn't complete the trip. The convoy as well had to repair 88 wooden bridges, all of which they broke, including 14 just in the state of Wyoming. While not really a success the convoy did manage to succeed to encourage the states and counties to fund the building of better roads across the nation.
One of the people with this cross country convoy was a young officer named Ike Eisenhower. Though Ike spent most of the trip playing pranks on his fellows concerning attacks by "wild Indians", the trip left an indelible mark on him. As many of you long-term Professor Errare readers probably remember, Ike later became famous for hating his wife and having a dick that didn't work. Oh yeah, he also became Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces during World War II and later became president. It was this last fact that was most important. While Ike was in Germany he became very impressed by the Nazi built Autobahn system, which allowed for the rapid movement of commerce and the military. Ike wanted something similar for the U.S., and when he became president in 1953 it became one of his most championed causes.
It wasn't exactly an easy sell. At first a lot of people didn't see the point. After all, the country already had plenty of railroads to move shit around. Ike countered with the fact that only the railroads got to move stuff on their tracks, which kind of sucked because the railroads tended to be a bunch of dicks about it. However, anybody could move stuff on the highways, providing some much needed competition for interstate commece. When that didn't convince people he changed tactics, instead claiming that the interstate system was needed to quickly move the military from one end of the country to the other, you know, in case the Soviets invaded. It being the middle of the Cold War and the McCarthy Red Scare, where everyone saw commies in every shadow, this argument gained a lot more traction. Added as a cherry to the top was the entirely bogus claim that the interstates could be used to rapidly evacuate civilians from cities during a nuclear bomb attack. Of course then things broke down again as people argued how to pay for the damn thing. This part is extremely boring, so we'll just kind of skip over it, but sufficed it to say that that by 1956 the Federal Aid Highway Act was passed.
It was the largest public works project in American history, costing an estimated $500 billion (in today's money) to build 41,000 miles of interstate over the next 35 years. All of it designed to exact specifications to allow the speedy movement of trucks and cars. In cities countless homes and businesses were bulldozed to make way for Ike's dream. When Ike left office in 1961 only 25 percent of the project was complete. The remaining 75 percent would take more time as funding issues and irate homeowners often slowed the construction in many areas to a crawl. Today, thanks to Ike's efforts, you can drive the exact same route he did in 1919, but it will only take you four days compared to the 56 it took him. That's pretty fucking cool.